The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 27, 2001
Lead Article

The  saga of Maharaja’s sunken treasure

The discovery of the sunken treasure of late Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, which had been lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea for the past 85 years, has generated widespread interest and speculation, writes G.S. Aujla

EVER since an English couple, Alexandra and Moya Crawford, claims to have spotted the debris of the sunken ship that is believed to have carried the treasure of late Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea for the past 85 years, widespread interest and speculation about the story has been generated. This interest is comparable to the discovery of Titanic’s remains, which led to the making of a 14 Oscar-winning celluloid magnum opus.

Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala

If the descendants of the great Maharaja press their claim, the story could also arouse curiosity similar to that evoked by Maharaja Duleep Singh’s secret vault in Zurich. Says Moya Crawford, "This is the most exciting wreck we have gone for. You can’t beat the old steamers and their sense of history and this one has a good cargo which adds romanticism to it, mirroring the Titanic storyline".

Outside the contemporary royal family, the ‘only Indian’ who knew about the unfortunate ship and what it carried was my father’s real uncle, Inder Singh, who was a trusted officer in the service of the Maharaja of the erstwhile princely state of Kapurthala and accompanied him on all foreign trips. Dewan Jarmani Das in his book The Maharaja refers to Inder Singh’s personality in glowing terms. Recounting his experience during the Maharaja’s visit to Argentina, Jarmani Das records, "The Maharaja took a large staff of officers with him, including a Sikh who used to be dressed in most gorgeous clothes and with his white flowing beard attracted the crowds who had never seen a Sikh gentleman in their life..... once at a gala performance given by the President of the Republic of Argentina at the opera, the Maharaja was applauded for several minutes, but the chief attraction was the Sikh officer who usually accompanied the Maharaja on such official occasions. At the end of the performance, the Sikh officers by the name of Inder Singh was applauded by the big crowd inside and outside the theatre".


Sardar Inder Singh Unlike so many Indian princes, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was a globe-trotter and was out of the country for at least six months in a year, the summer invariably being spent in Europe. Referring to his foreign tours with pride, the Maharaja wrote in 1926, "I have travelled far and wide over the four continents of the world as much as time and circumstances have permitted". An avid Francophile, he was fluent in French and wrote his personal diary in that language. France left an indelible impression on the tastes and predilections of the prince in as much as that the palace which he constructed for himself (1898-1908) was largely influenced by the architectural features of the Palace of Fountainbleau and the Palace of Versailles. Unlike so many Indian princes he did not have a huge harem. He had only five wives and not three hundred as has been irresponsibly quoted.

The Maharaja returned to France to enjoy life in the debonair metropolis of Paris. While Cartier’s of France designed the finest jewellery for the Maharaja and his five wives, the seaside beaches of Nice attracted the royal entourage for outdoor fun and frolic.

The outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) did not deter the peripatetic Maharaja from his foreign jaunts, despite the fact that the maritime and naval animosity of the European blocs endangered civilian life both on land and sea. On March 2, 1915, the Maharaja left on a long trip to Europe and the USA, leaving the Bombay port abode S.S. Caledonia. While passing through Egypt he visited the British Indian and Imperial Service Regiments guarding the Suez Canal. From Egypt he repaired to Paris and then moved on to Spain. At the end of April, he sailed for the USA from Gibraltar aboard French liner S.S. Patria.

He spent four months visiting New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Colorado Springs, Grand Canyan, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. After visiting the Salt Lake and the Yellow Stone Park he crossed into Canada, where he visited Winnipeg, Toronto, Niagra Falls, Montreal and Quebec. He made a flying visit to Ottawa where he was entertained by the Duke and Duchess of Cannaught.

Sardar Inderjit Singh’s country houseIn August, 1915, the Maharaja arrived in England and met, among others, the King Emperor and Queen, who thanked the Maharaja for rendering "ungrudging assistance" in connection with the great war. The Maharaja arrived in Paris in October, where he spent two months. During his stay, the Maharaja went down to the trenches on the Franco-German border. He also watched the bombardment of the German lines by the French guns at Reims and Bosches.

Early in December, 1915, the Maharaja was to set sail homewards from the port of Marsailles in southern France aboard the ship S.S. Persia. I have found that the name of the ship which later sank was S.S. Persia and not Britannia as has been codenamed by the Crawford couple, perhaps for operational secrecy.

Before the Maharaja could set foot on the ill-fated ship, S.S. Persia, information came to him from a secret source that the Germans were planning to target the ship. This eleventh hour tip-off sent waves of consternation amongst the royal entourage. While serious deliberations on the possible strategies were going on, Inder Singh proposed that the Maharaja along with some chosen companions stay back in Marsailles and take another ship, while he himself offered to sail in the ‘targeted’ ship. This ship carried all personal belongings of the Maharaja and a significant portion of his jewellery. The Maharaja’s sunken treasure, amassed in London and the USA, was worth £ 1 million at that time.Comprising gold and silver bullion, gemstones and jewellery, its value could be as much as £ 50 million today.

While the impressive bearing of Inder Singh, still conveyed the dubious impression of an Indian celebrity travelling on the ship, the Maharaja himself not on board.

Maj-Gen Kuldip Singh AujlaAs the ship stretched its legs in the Mediterranean sea and came near the Greek island of Crete, it was hit by a German submarine on December 30, 1915. Inder Singh, though a middle-aged man at that time, enjoyed robust health and could swim at length. While the passengers of the torpedoed ship jumped into the water for safety and consequently met with a watery grave, Inder Singh was lucky enough to spot a big wooden raft falling off the ship. He swam up to it and perched himself atop this ‘floating stretcher’. He floated in the freezing saline waters of the sea for three days till a rescue ship came looking for survivors. The injured Inder Singh was taken to an island hospital where he was given the much-needed medical relief.

Among the notable survivors was John Walter Edward Scot Montague (known as Lord Montague of Beaulieu), an automobile pioneer in England and editor of the illustrated magazine The Car. His girl friend and secretary, Eleanour V. Thornton, a paragon of beauty on whom was modelled the mascot of the Rolls Royce car radiator, unfortunately drowned and could not be saved. Lord Montague was thought to have been killed, too, but survived and was rescued. On his return to England, he read the obituary articles in the newspapers about his demise. Among those died were four English nuns bound for Karachi.

The Maharaja, having providentially avoided travelling in the ill-fated S.S. Persia, left by Dutch boat Prinz Due Nederland for Egypt, where he changed into the ship Medina and arrived safely in Mumbai on January 18, 1916.

"The news of the shipwreck reached our Aujla village promptly", says Major Bishen Singh, a grandson of Inder Singh, "throwing the entire village into a pall of gloom. It was after a number of days of mourning that a messenger came from the palace to tell bapuji Lt Rup Singh that Babaji had survived and would be reaching India soon. This news was received with matching exuberance in the village".

My father, Suchet Singh, who became the Inspector-General of Police in the erstwhile princely state of Kapurthala and later on a member of Parliament, partook of his his first drink (whisky) at the age of 11 when tayyaji (Inder Singh) returned safely to the village after having been presumed dead for several days.

Says Maj-Gen Kuldip Singh a great grandson of Inder Singh, "After that the Maharaja made it an annual feature to visit our village in the winter season for partridge shooting. While the Bawarias of Mansoorwal used to beat partridges out of the bushes — the royal party on elephant back made them easy targets". The Maharaja during all his shots used to have lunch at the beautiful European lodge that Inder Singh had built outside his Aujla village.

I have, during the course of my research on the ill-fated ship, got documentary proof from the archives which proves that the targeted ship S.S. Persia carried a great deal that belonged to the then Maharaja. The Report on the Administration of the Kapurthala State for the year 1915-1916 says, "The Maharaja was further affected by the disaster through the loss of all his personal effects, including some jewellery."

This documentary proof appears to be an understatement as it finds mention in a published document. "Privately it appears that the loss was much more" says Major Bishen Singh. Since the Maharaja’s loss was of a personal nature he may have been comparatingly tight-lipped about it, the magnitude of the loss not withstanding.

It only reinforces the belief that the items lost belonged to the Maharaja and, as such, his descendants are their legitimate claimants. It is for the insurance company (if any) to prove if they paid any compensation to the then Maharaja for the loss. In the absence of it, all the valuables deposited in the sea-bed or whatever is left of them are rightfully the Maharaja’s. The Crawfords have indeed hit a jackpot!

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